Test Pilot #40: NYPD Blue
Debut date: September 21, 1993
Series legacy: Descendant of Hill Street Blues, one of the catalysts for an era of grittier police dramas
Hiya, folks! Welcome back to Test Pilot. This is our 40th entry and that’s simply crazy to me. Thanks to everyone who has read or written with me in this space, I really appreciate it.
Anyway, let’s get that false modesty out of the way, because today we kick off a brand-new Test Pilot theme. The beginnings of themes are always so fun. So much promise and wide-eyed hope for quality discussion (that’s almost always fulfilled!). Over the next 10 weeks, my guests and I will tackle the contemporary police drama. Before you groan or immediately think of David Caruso-delivered puns, I think it’s important to point out that not all “cop shows” are generic, lowest-common-denominator fare. The police procedural is one of, if not the, most dominant scripted format in the television industry. We like to think of the “cop show” with very specific terminology and iconography in mind, but countless series have attempted to mix up the general framework of the police drama. My hope is that this theme will explore five series that personify the innovative and complex ways to approach a cop show, especially in the contemporary era of television that is so-defined by basic procedurals (mostly on CBS).
We kick things off with what was, at the time, one of the most controversial broadcast network dramas to ever air on American television, NYPD Blue. Though initially draped in a hyperbolic hullabaloo, Blue quickly became one of the most popular dramas of its era and along with ER, helped solidify the prestige of the 10 p.m. drama series. NYPD Blue ran for dozen seasons and oddly, time hasn’t been too kind to it. The David Milch-led drama is rarely discussed in any “great series” discussions (until Vulture’s recent Drama Derby, where it lost to The Shield). Today, we discuss why people loved NYPD Blue so much all those years ago, and perhaps why we’ve sort of forgotten about it over the last decade.
Joining me today is Mark Waller. He is a pop culture blogger at TheBlogulator.com and TV Podcaster for Blogulator Radio. He’s also constantly tweeting at @marquallerand you should follow him. Mark, go crazy:
It’s kind of hilarious to think about how controversial NYPD Blue was when it premiered on ABC back in 1993. As a budding television enthusiast at age ten, I remember seeing the cover of TV Guide touting NYPD Blue as the first “R-rated” series on network TV. It was the first series I remember having the now ubiquitous “Parental Discretion Advised” advisory in its promotional material. And, from what I heard, there was nudity! On television! That stuff be crazy to a ten-year-old in the early 90s. Naturally, this was not a series that my parents allowed me to watch, even though I had weaned my way into the network drama by way of Dallas.
It’s hilarious to think about the controversy mainly because, by today’s standards, NYPD Blue comes off as relatively tame. But the coarse language and sexual situations caused over 50 ABC affiliates to not screen the pilot episode, or about 10% of the total affiliates in the country. Clearly, this was a winning strategy in building publicity about a series that, underneath its gritty surface, was a complex, high-quality drama, a winning strategy because the series quickly became a Top 20 ratings hit that ended up running for twelve seasons, while the pilot episode itself was clearly seen by a lot of eyeballs.
And for good reason: the pilot is, even today, a gritty, occasionally uncomfortable series to watch, but all because of the way Det. Andy Sipowicz (played with incredible intensity by multiple Emmy winner Dennis Franz) is characterized right out of the box. The cold open, with Sipowicz in court fighting a losing fight over keeping mobster Alphonse Giardella in jail, immediately establishes Sipowicz as a morally ambiguous, racist, loose cannon cop, a guy who just isn’t very nice to be around. (“Hey! Ipsa this, you pissy little bitch!” he tells prosecutor Sharon Lawrence as he grabs his crotch as they leave the courthouse.) Short after the cold open, we find Sipowicz in the bar, where he tells his young, up-and-coming partner Det. John Kelly (played with a plucky spirit by David Caruso) that he can take his career advice and shove it. At the end of his bender, he gets picked up for harassing the crap out of Giardella, stuffing a $100 bill, his own socks, and Giaradella’s wig into his mouth, in a way that just feels super uncomfortable. It’s not the coarse language that makes thees situations uncomfortable, though – it’s the intense trouble that Sipowicz finds himself in immediately.
Certainly, Sipowicz is a much different cop character than the type TV audiences were used to seeing on a weekly basis. Prior to Blue, police officers on TV series were upholders of the moral code, keeping the streets safe from crime, while helping other people get back on their feet. Series like Law & Order churned out episode-by-episode involving detectives, prosecutors, and judges held to uphold the law and maintain civility. By comparison, Sipowicz is a total mess, someone who nobody wanted to work with in the NYPD.
Except for Det. John Kelly, who works as Sipowicz’s partner and, as we learn, works with Sipowicz because of how he worked both as a professional mentor and as a surrogate father, especially since his own father was killed in the line of duty. (It always comes back to the parents, doesn’t it?) Kelly himself is at a crossroads – he’s in the midst of a divorce with his attorney wife Laura Kelly (played by ER’s Sherry Stringfield). As we learn in the pilot, he’s battling demons himself, with the aforementioned father issues related to his line of work. Caruso himself is a great presence in the pilot, surprising this viewer who mainly knows Caruso as the guy who takes off his sunglasses at the beginning of episodes of CSI: Miami. Even with that, though, Det. Kelly plays more as a typical good-guy-detective archetype that wouldn’t be out of place on a Law & Order (albeit with a bit more spunk than any of the detectives on that series.) When Sipowicz is gunned down and Det. Janice Licalsi (played by Amy Brenneman) gets roped into a scheme to kill Kelly by Giradella, the series plays some cop show beats that probably felt a lot more familiar to TV viewers in 1993. It’s that smooth finish that Stephen Bochco, a veteran producer with lots of hits on his resume at the time, most likely brought into the mix.
But, it’s the mixture of smooth, slick drama and gritty personal drama that makes NYPD Blue a trailblazer. Sipowicz himself can be seen as a precursor to future TV characters like Vic Mackey on The Shield, Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, and, to a lesser extent, Jack Bauer on 24. The difference lies in the writing of executive producer David Milch. Though Milch had a writing staff who was credited for writing most of the episodes, he reportedly rewrote every script that was written in his seven years as lead producer. Many of the elements of Milch-written series, especially like Deadwood, are in full effect in the pilot, most notably making his hard-drinking, hard-living central character a lost soul with a big heart that got lost in a haze of alcohol and past traumas. Milch himself is a fascinating character, and learning about his own career makes it seem obvious that he wrote Sipowicz as a character channeling many of his own personal experiences.
Other Milchian hallmarks evident in the pilot include Kelly’s somewhat adversarial, strange, occasionally hilarious relationship with the guy who lives in apartment 4B next to his soon-to-be ex-wife (a plot that takes a surprising, tragic turn in a later episode), characters cooling down their personal angst with prostitutes (not unlike Al Swearengen’s predilection for prostitutes on Deadwood), and characters reciting monologues to people and/or things that can’t respond, like in the scene where Kelly monologues to a hospitalized Sipowicz that touches on all the reasons why he keeps doing what he’s doing. As the first season progressed, the special stuff that Milch brings to the table continues to blossom, as the series continued to find beauty and grace in ugly situations.
It’s easy to look at NYPD Blue on the surface as a gritty turn on the police procedural. But Bochco and Milch worked the bait-and-switch angle hard with this pilot, sucking viewers in with the publicity and keeping them around with a well-written, superbly acted series. The pilot is a great snapshot of what would become a great series.
And now, my thoughts on the NYPD Blue pilot:
It is difficult to discuss the opening episode of Blue without considering the hoopla surrounding its premiere that now seems outdated and a bit ridiculous. Mark did a fine job of addressing that context so I won’t belabor the point further and instead just say that I couldn’t not think about the outrage while watching this episode nearly 20 years later. However, there’s something else that I couldn’t stop thinking about while watching Blue’s opening salvo: Hill Street Blues.
This pilot and HSB’s pilot share many qualities, both within the respective texts and the contexts surrounding their arrivals. Both series were met with a certain level of skepticism, whether because of the vulgarity and nudity (NYPD Blue) or because of what was deemed an inaccessible approach to the cop drama (Hill Street). Both pilots throw the audience into the deep-end with few contextual clues as to who is who and why they matter (although NYPD Blue certainly gives the audience more guideposts, if only because the cast is smaller). Both pilots feature characters who are far from perfect, and who don’t even really fit into the typical construction of the “flawed” television hero. Sipowicz and Kelly are pretty messed up, just like many of Hill Street’s leads. Adultery, blurred lines between cop and criminal, even an attempt on a cop’s life – it’s all here.
This of course makes sense. Steven Bochco brought Hill Street Blues to life and eventually hired a young buck named David Milch to guide the ship in that series’ later years. Not too soon after, the duo brought NYPD Blue to ABC, meaning they provided two networks (the other being NBC) the prominent police dramas of two decades (1980s and 1990s, obviously). Without Hill Street and the barriers it broke, both on a creative level and how it opened the audience’s eyes to the kind of complexity they could actually enjoy, NYPD Blue likely couldn’t have existed in the following decade. The two series are definitely different (at least in their first seasons, which is basically all I’ve seen of either), but they are of a piece.
And the biggest similarity between Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue? Both pilots hold up against time quite well. I’ve discussed the opening HSB pilot before (and that’s mostly why we disregarded it for this theme as well), but I felt very similarly as I watched NYPD’s initial episode. While there are moments where this effort seems dated, most of those moments can be written off as artifacts of a different era. The fashion is predictably nineties: ugly colors, clothes that don’t appear to fit and some pretty porous haircuts. The music is definitely evocative – that opening theme song is one of my favorites ever – but there are times where it grates as well.
Elsewhere, though, NYPD Blue shows very little sign of aging, some 20 years later. I was surprised to see how visually striking this opener is. It is simultaneously dirty, grimy and sweaty and stunning at the same time, which isn’t easy to pull off on television. Gregory Hoblit’s direction is one of the stronger pieces of work in an admittedly strong pilot episode. Hoblit creates a great sense of place from the get-go (the on-location shooting certainly doesn’t hurt in this regard) and there’s a frenetic, but not too spastic atmosphere to the proceedings, from when Kelly and Sipowicz are on the street or in the precinct.
Perhaps the most impressive technical feature of this pilot is the editing. I don’t want to presume too much, but based on cursory research and my educated guessing, I’d say that the quick cuts seen here were at least moderately new for the medium. The editing is particularly great at putting the audience into Kelly’s psyche: It’s all over the place when he’s at work or dealing with the fall-out of Sipowicz’s shooting; it’s much more controlled and well, normal, when he’s spending time with Licalsi. We tend to only recognize editing when it’s really good or really bad and thankfully NYPD Blue falls into the former category.
Despite the aforementioned technical attributes of this pilot, there’s little question that NYPD Blue succeeds because of the performances of its two leads. Dennis Franz won approximately 81 Emmys for his performance as Sipowicz and even in the short time the character is given in this pilot, the actor makes one hell of an impact. Archived reviews of the pilot kept mentioning the opening sequence, especially the part where Sipowicz delivers the “pissy bitch” line, but I thought Franz was even better in the moments leading up to his shooting. The way his Sipowicz darts into the bar, downing shots, breathing heavily and looking straight ahead (and thus away from the camera) is a glorious bit of mostly-non-verbal work from Franz and more or less tells us all we need to know about the character.
Of course, this pilot wouldn’t even work without David Caruso. Hold on, let me pick up my jaw. Caruso is a massive laughing stock in 2012, but the humor starts to fade once you watch this episode and you see just how darn good he was back then. There’s absolutely no hammy line delivery or inflexible mannerisms here; Caruso displays genuine human emotion, depth and a great bit of rugged-edged complexity. Kelly’s not really a saint either (and the pilot suggests that Sipowicz has played a big part in Kelly’s [d]evolution), but he’s trying his best to balance a difficult job, a terrible, reckless partner and whatever is going on at home. Caruso plays Kelly with the right amount of humanity and never dials up the “edginess” too much, which helps construct the character in the right space between hero and anti-hero. Caruso obviously made the wrong choice when he left Blue early in season two, but I can also see why he thought this version of himself could be a movie star: He’s that good.
What surprises me, if even just a little, about watching this pilot is how little I noticed the dialogue. David Milch’s work comes with its own brand of expectations in 2012, but the ramped-up rants or overly-expressive word choices aren’t really on display here, outside of the very powerful scene where John expresses his complicated daddy issues and his conflicted feelings over visiting the hospital. I know that Blue certainly displayed more typically Milch-ian monologues later on, but perhaps Bochco provided a more hands-on presence with the pilot, or perhaps Milch dialed it down just a bit because it was a pilot. Blue certainly features Milch-like levels of vulgarity, which, again, were new for television at the time, but the stylistic flourishes aren’t there. This is fine, though, since it allowed my focus to be almost solely on the quality performances happening on screen.
It is cliché to say it, but NYPD Blue succeeds here and succeeded for a long time because it focuses/focused on the characters. Most pilots are more focused on characters and world-building anyway, but Blue knew how to weave complex character-based stories in with its more procedural elements. This certainly wasn’t a brand-new approach in 1993, since Hill Street Blues more or less pioneered it nearly a decade earlier, but Blue’s smaller cast and Milch’s sharp mind allowed the series to dive even deeper into the damaged lives of its characters. The series, along with Homicide, brought a certain grit to the mainstream police drama that while had surely been seen before, hadn’t been seen in combination with such great writing and acting. It’s unnecessary to compare NYPD Blue and Homicide, but I think the former was more interested in exploring the sad, sometimes deranged depths of its characters, while the latter definitely had a better eye on the process of police work. Both series succeeded on both fronts, but together, they followed Hill Street Blues and shoved audiences into a new era of “cop shows.”
And yet, 20 years later, Homicide is definitely discussed more often among TV critics and internet TV types. Certainly Homicide’s connection to The Wire through David Simon helps its cause, and perhaps its ratings struggles make it a bit more of an underdog. Nevertheless, it confuses me why Blue isn’t remembered with a large amount of reverence. Is it solely because it overstayed its welcome? Is it because the series replaced Caruso and Jimmy Smits with Ricky Schroder and Mark-Paul Gosselaar? I understand if the first question is a big reason, but that definitely bugs me. NYPD Blue might have gotten old, or overstayed its welcome, but that doesn’t really undercut its strongest moments. And at its strongest, like this pilot, NYPD Blue brought something very novel and compelling to audiences. That shouldn’t be forgotten.
Conclusions on legacy: Unfortunately overlooked and (perhaps surprisingly) timeless